If you are like me, and you probably are, then you have struggled a lot with mental barriers, those pesky thoughts that keep telling you can NOT do a certain thing or that this idea won’t work and when you try to challenge them, they answer back with yet a list of reasons why you should Not be doing this or why you can NOT be doing that or why you HAVE to be doing other things. Lately; after two years of therapy, and after trying and failing and trying again, I was able to stop my brain mid thought, call it out on its negativity and quickly reframing my mind to think differently. I was finally able, for the first time in years, to make an ally of my mind and I realized that learning that others struggled with similar mental barriers, thought distortions or whatever you prefer to call them, learning that I was not alone and learning that others have managed to overcome them empowered me through my journey. So I have decided to put them all out on paper in an attempt to help others by sharing my perspective and self-empower through introspection.
I have organized my thoughts into a list of 9 mental barriers that is in no way exhaustive but they felt most relevant to what I aspire to accomplish in life, the mental barriers are:
1- Labeling myself:
As a person with a scientific background, I have learned to label myself as a doctor and I allowed it to define me and become part of my identity and being a woman who is born and raised in the middle east, becoming a doctor only adds to a list of things that you should do and yet a longer list of things that you should absolutely never dare to do. Labeling myself has boxed me up into a template that nearly broke me and prevented me from seeing myself beyond the constraints of that label. It has also, for the longest time, made me confused who I am with what I do and made it very difficult for me to accept other parts of my life because I only saw them in terms of labels, e.g., wife, mother. And I had already accepted my identity to be exclusively a doctor.
2- Having self-limiting notions about myself
This barrier is the umbrella under which all mental barriers fall. Most of our problems arise from believing things about ourselves which are not true and we believe them as hard facts and they leave us uninspired, unaccomplished and miserable. I remember constantly referring to myself as “the least creative person you know”. I would shy away from tasks that required any degree of creativity, like coming up with a catchy name for our study proposal in the hospital where I worked back then. But more often than not, I found myself doing things that people referred to as creative or coming up with solutions to problems that others haven’t thought of and I genuinely craved creativity in my life until finally I embraced my passion of baking and cooking and realizing they were “creative expressions” of myself and realizing all that time that I called myself uncreative was only my fear of being vulnerable or putting myself “out there” where I might be criticized.
3- Being my own worst critic
I couldn’t believe what I heard when my therapist uttered those words; “You are your own worst critic”, I mean what does that mean? All those years I thought I was positive and self-encouraging, was I just delusional? I spent years of my life feeling buried under the weight of other people’s criticism of me that I didn’t realize that I was echoing that criticism inside my head and when they were no longer around to criticize me, I continued to offer their hard labor, only I did it better, for who knows me better than, ME! It took time and hard work and guidance to be able to identify that voice in my head and do what is necessary; kill it, sneer at it, shut it up, in short, I did whatever it took to gain back control over a sacred territory; my mind! No wonder one of my favorite quotes ever is that one by Ann Bradford: “Tell the negative committee that meets inside your head to sit down and shut up.”
4- Hiding behind rules/evidence
Studying any health sciences and working in Academia is sustaining a substantial deal of scrutiny and criticism that eventually has a toll on anyone’s mental health and self-esteem. I thought that if I had the right credentials or quoted the right people or was backed up by enough studies that I will be above criticism, no wonder I went into research. Biomedical research is governed by rules and managed by scientific evidence, personal opinions are, by definition, at the bottom of the evidence pyramid. And I thought if I work hard and acquire the right letters to follow my name MSc, PHD, MD, DDS then I would be above doubt, above criticism and I would no longer see myself as an imposter. It wasn’t until I had been in research for ten years that I had noticed that I had encountered more idiots that are PhD holders than flies in a dumpster. I also learned that feeling like an imposter or lacking self confidence were more about what I thought and how I talked to myself than any credentials I had or lacked. This issue, however, is a challenging one. I needed to meditate every morning when I joined this new research project that involved an area that was new to me and with a team that offered as little support as humanly possible. In short, it was me, myself and all my inner demons at play. But with time, patience, and lots of therapy I felt more in control of my thoughts.
5- Vowing to be “good”
Discipline has been a major constituent of my upbringing and while discipline is major a determinant of success, discipline without context is basically self-inflicted torture. I have spent days, weeks on end trying to stick to my diet or trying to learn a new skill that everyone said it’s a must have, or trying to make myself comfortable with a job that I knew I hated just because it’s a career that everyone wanted. Then I realized that I genuinely felt comfortable in my skin and didn’t care about looking like everyone else and that I hate every bit of that skill and do not need it/never needed it for my career progress. And that job that everyone wants is sucking the life out of me and I’d much rather have a much less prestigious career than be miserable. And I learned that until I knew WHY I wanted to do what I was doing then I will never be able to commit time or energy to it. And that’s when I knew that being disciplined is not the main objective while being disciplined to achieve my goals is a form of self respect.
6- Caring about what people thought
I always thought of myself as rebellious, in fact my msn messenger (yes, I am that old) profile name was “epanastatria” which is Greek for “rebellious girl” combining my two passions at the time: “rebellion” and “anything Greek”. I thought I didn’t care what people thought of my words, actions or beliefs and I wish I could tell you when I started to care, but it happened. My rebellion got knocked out of me like a gene gets knocked out of a knockout mouse (nerdy pun intended). And nothing is more detrimental to a person’s self confidence and true identity than caring about what other people thought of oneself. I don’t believe I have overcome that barrier, but I know I am more capable of identifying it when it is at play. I stop my brain from spiraling and I simply ask myself why I want to do that thing or why I wish to avoid that other thing and if the answer is related to what people might think, I work on dismissing that thought. I sometimes succeed and manage to do what I believe is my genuine wish. But sometimes I struggle with identifying what is truly my wish and what society has taught me I should want.
7- All or none thinking
I know I am not the only one who thinks this way. But I have noticed that women are more prone to struggle with this mental barrier than men. I remember years ago when my friend was panicking before her wedding because she didn’t know how she will be able to handle a job, a thesis and a marriage. Her rationale was that she likes to do things well. I dismissed her claims as cold feet and tried to encourage her using all my pep talk tricks; little did I know how things would unravel. It took her almost a decade to finish her thesis, didn’t return to work until her son was well into elementary school and it was not because she lacked the means or the resources to do things differently. It was because she believed she cannot have a successful career and be a good mother all while working on her thesis, so she decided to give up completely. I, too, find myself steering myself into insanity occasionally when a good opportunity presents itself and my mind spirals out of control over thinking everything that I will not be able to do if I grasp this opportunity.
When I was offered my current job, I panicked about how I wouldn’t be able to drop off or pick up my kid from school and how I wouldn’t get a chance to go to the beach in the morning. All while actively seeking employment opportunities and feeling excited to be chosen. I know that managing a family, household and a job is tricky, but I am grateful and privileged that I have the means to have some assistance in my life. And panicking about not being able to do those things was only a mental barrier that prevented me from feeling good about a good situation and on some occasions, it might prevent me or others from achieving what they aspire to do. That’s why it is important to identify this barrier and seeing it for what it truly is, an obstacle to success, happiness, and mental bliss.
8- Over preparing for things/waiting until I am ready
I can explain this away in one sentence, I have been a writer since I was a child, in fact I was published when I was 20, but I never allowed myself to pursue writing as a career until I was ready. In my head, being ready was living enough to have something to write about and sometimes it was waiting until I get proper training as a writer or until I found a publisher for the novel that I am yet to write. But none of that would make me a writer and certainly none of that made me write. Only writing did that and I always had something to write about.
9- Thinking my strengths were drawbacks
I am curious, I have always been curious. I now describe myself as a life-long learner. But for the longest time, around the time I got the rebellion knocked out of me, I also decided not to show my curiosity, not to ask too many questions and by time I was able to tame it. I guess it was all part of my plan to be more agreeable. I made a lot of people comfortable around me, mission accomplished! Until I heard people ask questions that I had on mind but never uttered and I saw the questions being celebrated and I wondered why it was that I saw my curiosity as a drawback and when on Earth did I learn to shut up. It is taking me quite the time and effort to speak up again and give voice to my thoughts. But I am reminded everyday of how it matters to be curious and how it matters to speak up when my daughter speaks her mind and I can see how smart and special she is and I learn to love my mind again and give voice to my thoughts again.
As I have mentioned earlier, those are some of the issues I have to deal with, sometimes daily and sometimes I win while other times I learn. I learn to be patient with myself and give myself credit for how far I have come. I celebrate all my wins, big or small. In fact, size no longer matters to me. I celebrate me for who I am right now not for whom I am capable of becoming. I wake up proud and humble and I understand that there will be things I accomplish and things I don’t, things I am good at and things I am not, but none of that will make resent myself or wish I were different. I am sharing all that I shared and choosing to be vulnerable to know that I do not need to hide and to learn that criticism won’t kill me and that at the end of the day, I will be fine.